Divergence and Convergence – the curse of the second act

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

It seems that every time I reach the middle of a WIP, I start musing on the problems a second act can cause a writer. Second acts are notoriously difficult for writers – there are hundreds of books and articles out there decrying the flabby belly, the second act bog, the meandering middle, the belly of the beast, “the time which is not the beginning and not the end, the time in which the artist and the protagonist doubt themselves and wish the journey had never begun” (David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife).

My struggle, it seems, is all to do with divergence and convergence. As a former intelligence analyst, the process of positing a reasonable theory involved both modes of thinking – divergence: brainstorming as many ideas, variables, possibilities as you could think up, and just running with them; and convergence: critically analysing the options to identify the strongest and then pushing them to their limits to see which would break and which would stand up to the assault.

It’s the same with drafting a book. Act I is drafted with what I call acute divergence – all wild ideas are welcome and there is no internal consistency that has been established or needs to be obeyed. This is creativity unleashed – it’s the exciting, adrenalin-fuelled writing rush. It’s why I have a thousand story ideas lurking on index cards and why I started a dozen stories in my youth but never got beyond chapter five.

But, after Act I, comes Act II. The first part of the second act (Act II(a)) is drafted with I call obtuse divergence – there’s still a lot of room for movement and creativity, even though the rules of consistency have been established. The world, the characters, the way things work have shape and form, but are still, to a certain extent, malleable. Like a child out of the womb; the features are formed – eyes look like eyes, toes like toes, the external tail of the embryo now a coccyx – but the bones haven’t yet set. When I draft Act II(a), I know there isn’t as much free reign or creative licence I had in Act I, but there’s still enough to take one of the story threads and let my imagination exploit it.

Mikhaeyla Kopievsky - Writing Tips and Tricks

That all changes after the Midpoint and the arrival of Act II(b). Now, I’m firmly in obtuse convergence. The parameters of the story are well-established – the bones have set – and I can feel myself chafing against the harder boundary. What’s worse, there’s no forward/downhill momentum – everything is still so vague with all these story threads to manage, it all just seems to coalesce in the middle. The epitome of a sagging belly! There’s no magic cure for this – you just have to power through it. Keep converging your story – tightening the plot, weaving the story threads closer together, shedding dead weight, and sharpening the spear-point.

Because if you do that, you’ll get to Act III – the point of acute convergence. Here there is no creative licence to go off track – everything is firmly in place. But in a good way. With everything finally tightened, you have  clear sight to the end. You have the forward/downhill momentum. It’s at this point, much like the first act, where the story seems to take on a life of its own – the driving force of the earlier acts pushing it towards its natural conclusion. I find that I write fastest (and with the most confidence) in the first and third acts – because there is acute plotting, drafting, and creativity at play.

Knowing that obtuseness is the enemy of my writing productivity, I’m now on a mission to discover tips and techniques to help deal with it… I’ll keep you all updated on what I find!

And if you have tips and techniques of your own – share them below in the comments! 

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Divergence and Convergence – the curse of the second act

The 15 Minute Four Act Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Over here, in my part of the world, it is winter. Which means flu season. Which, when you have a toddler in daycare, means lots of sniffly days on the lounge under blankets watching kids shows ad nauseum.

It’s not as bad as it sounds – there’s a lot of quality kids series out there these days and most only go for fifteen minutes. That means a distinct, wholly-contained, discrete narrative in fifteen minutes. And, as a bonus, the really good ones are perfect examples of the four act structure boiled down to its essentials.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog know that I’m a fan of the four act structure and have seen me break it down and assess it in detail before – so go ahead, you can skip this paragraph. For the newer readers, the four act structure is (at its core) a three-act structure that has its second act broken up into two components. The second act is still the middle – it’s just a middle of two parts – Act 2A and Act 2B. You can read more about the four act structure (and my take on it) here: go ahead, we’ll still be here when you get back.

So here I was, on another chilled out evening, rugged up in my favourite Basotho blanket with my favourite little man watching another episode of Rusty Rivets. Rusty Rivets is a series about a young inventor, Rusty, and his best friend, Ruby, who invent things and then get into trouble when those inventions don’t go as planned, and then have to use their creativity, ingenuity and resourcefulness to get themselves out of trouble.

Rusty Rivets

As I was watching tonight’s episode I thought to myself how I really liked that each episode always showed Rusty and Ruby thinking up new ideas, testing them, refining them, and then coming up with new ideas when the others didn’t work (a life lesson I’m always trying to teach my son). And that was when I realised, each episode is a quick lesson in the four act structure.

And what I really like, is that each episode is a lesson in using the four act structure in a medium that needs to hook attention early and keep it throughout. Something that novelists are being challenged with in an era of countless books, short attention spans, and lower tolerances for books that don’t grab readers by the throat and keep the pressure til the end.

So, what does this lesson in the four act structure look like – and what does it mean for us who use it in longer forms of narrative (like novels and scripts)?

Hook comes before the Status Quo

In my interpretation of the four act structure, each story (and act) begins with the status quo before moving to the disturbance. And that still holds true – but rather than locate the story’s hook with the disturbance, this new approach puts it up front in the status quo. In this approach, the hook is a point of interest that happens in the world of the status quo. It is interesting, but not unexpected or unusual.

In the  Rusty Rivets episode where a robot skunk is on the loose, Rusty is attending a flower show festival with his mum. The festival a point of interest within his usual world. It’s noteworthy – it stands out from the regular routine – but it’s not unusual or out of the comfort zone. It’s the difference between a festival (lots of fun and excitement, but in a comfortable/’I’ve seen this before’/’I know what this is about’ event) and an alien invasion (exciting, but also terrifying in a ‘I’m completely out of my depth’ kind of way). One’s the hook, the other’s the disturbance.

In Hunger Games – the hook is the day of the reaping. It’s noteworthy and interesting, but not unfamiliar. Compare that to Prim being called and Katniss volunteering – that’s noteworthy, interesting, terrifying, and something that upsets the status quo and sends things on a new trajectory.

And that’s kind of the point:

  • The hook is something interesting about the status quo/normal/business-as-usual world – it’s a bright point but it doesn’t change the status quo and doesn’t elicit any change or need for development in the protagonist. It serves three purposes – i) to get us interested in the story, ii) to hint at the disturbance and/or story conflict, and iii) to show the story world and the status quo and the protagonist’s characteristic moment.
  • Unlike the disturbance, which is the thing that interrupts the status quo and threatens to throw the normal world off balance and the protagonist out of their comfort zone.

In the Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise’s character, Major Cage, getting deployed to active combat is the hook. And one that really pushes the envelope as far as hooks are concerned – because it does seem to teeter on the edge (no pun intended) of becoming a disturbance. It is a dramatic shift in the status quo and normal world of the protagonist and it pushes the protagonist out of his comfort zone.

edge of tomorrow

And maybe, if the story was a war drama, it would have been the disturbance. Except this is is a sci-fi movie, so we know that things haven’t really disrupted the status quo. A military desk officer being deployed to active combat is still within the realms of possibility in this story world – the event is an annoyance to the protagonist and threatens his comfort zone, but doesn’t threaten his worldview of what is or isn’t possible. That comes when kills an alpha alien and gains the ability to reset time every time he is killed. That’s the disturbance.

LESSON: Put your hook up front and use it to show the normal world and the protagonist’s motivation and armour/critical flaw.

 

Keep the initial response short

The initial response to the disturbance (typically a refusal of the call to action) in the long form of the four act structure is designed to show the protagonist’s inner conflict – to show that engaging with the disturbance/story problem is not an easy decision or one within their comfort zone.

There a hundreds of reasons why a protagonist won’t engage with a disturbance – it doesn’t directly affect them, the personal stakes aren’t high enough, they don’t have the skills or resources or opportunity to engage, the risks of engaging outweigh the risks of avoidance, etc, etc.

If you’ve done your job in establishing the hook and status quo, you shouldn’t need to spend too much time on this initial response. The refusal should be logical/reasonable given all that has come before.

In Rusty Rivets, Rusty doesn’t engage because his mum steps in to deal with the skunk. In the episode about the super sticky glue, he doesn’t engage because he is literally unable to move. Both reactions are brief and quickly followed by a push towards the first plot point/the point of no return/the undeniable push for protagonist engagement.

In Edge of Tomorrow, the initial response by Major Cage is to become a passive spectator. He gets reset and reacts to the same scenario and dies and gets reset again. It’s shown in a kind of montage – emphasising that he is stuck in this new reality and that his reacting isn’t getting him anywhere. It quickly changes when he meets Emily Blunt’s character, the Angel of Verdun,  and we get the sense that now the real story is starting.

The ‘passive spectator’/’react only’ characterisation that is at the core of the initial response. It’s only when the protagonist starts to actively engage that we move into Act 2. Readers and audiences want to get to this part quickly – they like warming up to a story, but once they get a feel for the world, the protagonist, and the story problem, they start getting impatient to get to the ‘real story’ – to know what thread, out of all the many possible threads there are, will be followed. Don’t hold out on them – get to Act 2 quickly.

LESSON: Do the heavy lifting with your hook and status quo to limit the time you need to dedicate to the initial response. Get to the ‘real story’ of Act 2 as soon as you can. 

The difference between Act 2A and Act 2B

Where the initial response is passive reaction. Act 2 is all about active engagement. The first part (Act 2A) is engagement without growth or change. It’s the protagonist acting the way they would normally act, drawing on the same resources, falling back on what they know and have done in the past.

In Rusty Rivets, this is always Rusty and Ruby trying to solve things without an invention (i.e. running after it, sneaking up on it, trying to catch it themselves, etc) or trying to fix the invention that has malfunctioned by normal means (things that any kid would come up with as a solution).

In Hunger Games, this is Katniss surviving using the skills and knowledge she already had back in District 12 – hunting, trekking, climbing, being stealth.

In Act 2A, the protagonist is engaging, but not growing.

Act 2B the protagonist is both forced to think completely outside the square of their old life and draw on the new knowledge, skills, resources, and comrades (mentors, sidekicks, allies) they have gained in Act 2A to make progress.

In Rusty Rivets, this means Rusty and Ruby combine it and design it to come up with a new invention to fix the problem. Which they continue to refine until they get to their false victory.

In Hunger Games, it’s Katniss no longer relying on herself to survive (as she always has), but teaming up with someone else to win.

It’s still active engagement, but it’s engagement that requires the protagonist to do something new (hinting that protagonist is becoming someone new).

LESSON: Act 1 is passive spectating/reaction, Act 2A is active engagement without change, Act 2B is active engagement by trying something new/becoming someone new 

Act 3 is still the same

Yep, it’s still what follows the false victory and dark night of the soul, where the protagonist must use all that has been learned along the way and shed the final remnants of the old self in order to gain ultimate victory and achieve the final goal. Whereas Act 2B shows the protagonist doing something new, Act 3 is the protagonist emerging as someone new.

This is probably more on the lighter side in kids shows – there’s not as much character development (obviously). In Rusty Rivets, it’s always the same ‘transformation’ – Rusty and Ruby trusting their innovative and creative minds and thinking outside the box to use their latest invention in a new and unexpected way (like using the hot air balloon as a cushion to save Rusty’s mum from crashing into the ground). In Edge of Tomorrow, the transformation is deeper and more complex – Major Cage becomes the hero he ran from being in the beginning of the movie even though he no longer has the ‘reset’ ability to fall back on.

LESSON: Act 4 is the emergence from the chrysalis – the butterfly ready to confront and defeat the antagonist in a way that the caterpillar never could. 

The 15 Minute Four Act Structure

Rinse & Repeat – The Four Act Novel Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently I reached the midpoint in the first draft of Divided Elements (Book 2). As anyone who has read my blog would know, I am not a fan of drafting ‘story middles’. After smashing through 5000-word weeks while drafting the first act, I watched with dismay as my production levels dropped and my indecision set in.

So, I did what I always do – I went back and reviewed my story structure. 

Like most advice on novel plotting, my own story structure model is great for guiding a writer through the first and final act – the breakdown in structure is clear and detailed and logical. But looking at the middle acts and it all breaks down. The gaps between the single turning point (the Midpoint) stretch for too long and the detail of what is required is reduced to ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’. Not very helpful, is it?

I’m not alone in that department, though. Even the legendary Save the Cat (Snyder) only gives us ‘B Story’, ‘Fun and Games’, and ‘Bad Guys Close In’. Story Engineering (Brooks) makes it even simpler, ‘Reaction’ and ‘Attack’.

Looking back on my plot outline, I knew immediately that the ambiguity around my story middle was the issue. Whereas all the other acts had detailed notes and clear plot points, Act 2A and Act 2B were notated with bare, broad-brushed statements – narrative equivalents of ‘Reaction’ and ‘Attack’.

I needed more detailed advice and guidance, so I started to analyse movies to find a common structural breakdown (I tend to find movies easier and quicker to analyse…). And what I discovered was surprising.

All story structure can be broken down into four acts. And those four acts essentially follow the same structure consisting of five elements. 

To draft this story I didn’t need to plot five turning points and the gaps in between, I just needed to write the first act four times.

“What??” I hear you say.
Stay with me…

The Rinse & Repeat Story Structure

So, this is my new and improved model of story structure, which borrows heavily from the old model but re-imagines it from a completely new perspective:

  • There are four acts: Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b and Act 3
  • The main story elements still apply – the inciting incident, the plot points (or doorways), the pinch points, the midpoint, the dark night of the soul, the final battle, the denouement – they’re all still there, but they’re framed differently.
  • There are five elements to each act – i) Status Quo, ii) Incident, iii) Initial Response, iv) Escalation -/+, and v) Decision
  • Each act deals with these elements in slightly different ways

The Matrix - Smith Clones

And this is how it plays out when plotting a novel:

Act 1 – NO ACTION or WRONG ACTION | Protagonist Mission: Maintain 

  • Status Quo – The Normal World – Showing the current state of play and hinting at why it shouldn’t (or can’t) continue on the same trajectory…
    • Introduction to protagonist in a characteristic moment that hints at their strengths, their ‘armour’ (what they draw comfort, protection, stability and strength from), and their critical weakness (their ‘fatal flaw’, ‘wound’, ‘misbelief’)
    • Introduction to the story world or environment that hints at its dark underbelly, vulnerability or weakness
    • Early indications, emerging issues and/or opportunities for a potential incident
  • Incident – The ‘Inciting Incident’ – the incident that threatens the status quo or (as is often the case in sequels) exacerbates it, and that calls the protagonist to action
  • Initial Response – Lack of engagement due to avoidance, resistance, ignorance, inability or error
  • Escalation -/+ – Increased Threat (the negative) followed by the Removal of the Obstacle to Action or emergence of a New Incentive for Engagement (the positive).
  • Decision – ‘Plot Point 1’ –
    • Conscious decision to engage, and
    • Articulating the goal or desire that will drive the protagonist forward from this point on.

Act 2A – ACTION WITHOUT STRATEGY | Protagonist Mission: Survive

  • Status Quo – The New World – Showing the Protagonist challenged by and reacting to the new world they find themselves in
    • Pandora’s Box – Removing the obstacle to action has introduced a whole raft of other obstacles to the protagonist goal
      • Introduction to other players – who assist, distract, antagonise, mentor…
      • Introduction of subplots – to deal with the various new obstacles presented
    • ‘Promise of the Premise’ – Let’s get tropey! – this is what Snyder calls the ‘Fun and Games’, it’s all the stuff you imagine when you hear ‘alien caper film’ or ‘time-travel romance novel’.
  • Incident – ‘Pinch Point 1’ – Hints at the true nature of the threat encountered in Act 1 and raises the level of tension and expectation. Requires a ‘boosted’ effort by the protagonist – i.e. deciding to engage isn’t enough; they need to interact with the threat (note: this is unlikely to be the true antagonist at this stage and more likely to be a manifestation or cronies or similar…)
  • Initial Response – Failed attempts. This is the heart of ‘all action, no thinking’. Everything is reactive, incoherent, unorganised – either because the protagonist and co are acting in the heat of the moment or because they don’t yet have what they need (information, resources, expertise, collaboration, etc) to develop a strategy. In this part of the story, the protagonist is still approaching the new problem the way they would in the old world.
  • Escalation -/+ – Threat of overall failure (the negative) – This needs to be HIGH STAKES! In the face of total failure, the protagonist can not have the option to just walk away. “Failure is not an option!” Immediately followed by a new understanding, revelation, or insight (the positive) that changes everything the protagonist and/or the reader knew (also the ‘Midpoint’)
  • Decision – To take on the antagonist – To deal with the real problem, not just its manifestation.

Act 2B – STRATEGY WITHOUT CHANGE | Protagonist Mission – Win

  • Status Quo – New Imperative – the frenetic action of a new plan coming together. Anticipation, excitement, urgency. Preparation and initial implementation/roll-out.
  • Incident – ‘Pinch Point 2’ – Highlights the underestimated strength of the antagonist and the continued weakness of the protagonist. Sets tone of menace even though the plan seems to be going swimmingly.
  • Initial Response – Continued implementation of the plan, building towards confrontation with antagonist, stringing together small wins, meeting the interim milestones needed for the plan to ultimately be successful. Building towards the False Victory. (This is the opposite of the Initial Response in Act 2A)
  • Escalation -/+ – The plan fails in the worst possible way and all seems lost (the negative) (also the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’). Immediately followed by a reprieve – an indication that success can be obtained, but that it will require facing impossible odds and taking extreme risks.
  • Decision – ‘Plot Point 2’ – The possibility of success is worth the risk / the threat of failure demands that every chance of success is pursued. The greater good takes precedence over personal safety.

Act 3 – CHANGE AND TRANSFORMATION | Protagonist Mission: Resolve

  • Status Quo – Final preparation. Coming to terms with what is being risked. Shedding the ‘armour’ and confronting the ‘misbelief’.
  • Incident – ‘Final Battle’ – Confronting the antagonist in the ultimate battle – a zero sum game – only one can survive.
  • Initial Response – The protagonist stumbles. This is the moment in The Karate Kid when Johnny sweeps the leg, or the moment in Rocky when he’s down for the count, just before the music builds and he lurches himself into one final effort.
  • Escalation -/+ – Threat of overall failure is palpable (the negative), immediately followed by new and extreme resolve (the positive).
  • Decision – The last ditch effort. All-in.

The Decision of Act 3 doesn’t lead into a new act, instead it progresses to:

  • Outcome – the Protagonist defeats the Antagonist (and either survives, or dies (literally or metaphorically) in the process)
  • Impact – the ‘Denouement’ – the resolution of the story. The impact of defeating the Antagonist. The ‘true’ goal of the protagonist is achieved – the intangible, bigger picture, ‘thematic’ goal (e.g. happiness, closure, forgiveness, etc)

 

I hope this helps you with your novel drafting and editing as much as it helped me. Can you see this structure playing out in your own book or favourite movies? Does it work? Let me know in the comments!

 

Liked this? Want more?

Discover the Divided Elements series now with award-winning Resistance (Divided Elements #1) and just-released Rebellion (Divided Elements #2). Available as paperback or ebook on your favourite device. Just click to start reading!

Divided Elements - Award-winning speculative fiction

 

 

Rinse & Repeat – The Four Act Novel Structure